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Volume 554: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Generation Sector

1. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the prospects for the energy generation sector in Wales. (129633)

Before I answer the question, Mr Speaker, with your permission I would like to express my sympathy—and, I am sure, that of the whole House—for the victims of the flooding in north Wales and our thanks for the hard work of the emergency services. I propose to visit the affected area tomorrow.

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on the prospects for the energy generation sector in Wales, particularly in relation to the recent good news that Horizon Nuclear Power has been bought by Hitachi, helping to secure the future for new nuclear on Anglesey.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and join him in paying tribute to our emergency services. On the specific issue of nuclear power, in my constituency of Pendle we have the excellent Graham Engineering, which is part of the nuclear supply chain and supports more than 300 local jobs. In light what he has just said about the Hitachi-Horizon announcement and nuclear generation in Wales, can he say more about supply chain job creation in both Wales and other parts of the UK?

The announcement by Hitachi provides an enormous opportunity for all those involved in the nuclear industry in this country, particularly those in the supply chain. I am heartened that Hitachi has already said that up to 60% of the total cost of the first nuclear reactor will come from British content. I have no doubt that there is a tremendous opportunity for companies such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I welcome the support the Secretary of State has given to Horizon and for the takeover by Hitachi. To get 21st-century technologies such as offshore wind and nuclear power on to the grid, we need to improve the infrastructure, and 21st-century infrastructure should include subsea and subsea stations. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the proposals from National Grid that are in front of the public in north Wales?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done in seeking to obtain new nuclear on Anglesey. He knows that I have always been anxious to work closely with him on all aspects of nuclear generation on Anglesey and of course I am prepared to meet him, because he has raised a very important point.

As the Secretary of State knows, Wales is very well placed for energy generation and the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project plans to offer educational services to the university in Swansea to foster skills in green energy creation. Will he commend the project and those similar to it for their commitment to creating jobs and local expertise in Wales?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Green energy presents enormous opportunities to Wales and I commend the project he mentions. We now have the green investment bank, which has just been launched today. It will provide the most enormous opportunity to leverage investment into that important future sector.

I thank the Secretary of State for being so positive. He knows that renewable energy generation in Wales increased by 58% between 2004 and 2010 and employs hundreds of people, including in the solar panel industry in mid-Wales, and of course we have seen the developments on Ynys Môn, the energy island. Does he agree that now is perhaps the time for us in Wales to showcase our skills, our resources and our prospects to the rest of the world at a green energy summit? If he is so minded, would it not be a good thing to place that summit in the enterprise zone at Trawsfynydd?

Actually, I had not thought of that, but it is an excellent idea that we should take further. I was speaking to the leader of Gwynedd council, Councillor Dyfed Edwards, the other day and discussed the important enterprise zone at Trawsfynydd. Let us explore the prospects of a summit at Trawsfynydd.

Organ Transplants

2. What discussions he (a) has had and (b) plans to have with the Welsh Government on effective ways of increasing organ transplantation in Wales. (129634)

We continue to work closely with the Welsh Government on their proposal to introduce an opt-out system of consent for organ donation in Wales. We have made considerable progress across the UK over the past four years with organ donor numbers rising by about 40% over the baseline year of 2007-08.

Since the organ donation taskforce was set up by the previous Prime Minister—it reported in 2008—there has been a massive increase in organ donation across the UK, particularly in Wales, where the level of donation is higher. What plans does my hon. Friend have to discuss with the Department of Health at Westminster and the Welsh Government the ways in which we can work together to build on that success?

Extensive discussions are under way involving all the Departments and Ministers that my hon. Friend mentioned with a view to achieving further increases in organ donation across the UK. We have yet to see the detail of the Welsh Government legislation, but we hope it will contribute to a further increase, not cut across it.

Hon. Members may recall the visit of Mr Matthew Lammas of Newport to the House just over a year ago. At the age of just 23, he gave a harrowing account of his wait, the frustrations and delays, for a heart transplant. Tragically, Matthew died two months ago, but is not the example of the frustration and delay that he faced a powerful argument for supporting the proposals of the Welsh Assembly Government?

The hon. Gentleman brings a powerful example to the House of why we need to do more at different levels, in both the UK and the Welsh Governments, to increase the number of organ donors across the UK, and to that end we look forward to seeing the detail of the Welsh Government legislation.

I did not realise the hon. Gentleman wished to ask Question 3. I shall call Nia Griffith first. We will get to the hon. Gentleman; we are saving him up.

I very much welcome the Welsh Government’s initiative of introducing legislation to increase organ donation, but after the Supreme Court justices described as “bizarre” the referral by the Secretary of State to the court of the Welsh Government’s byelaw legislation, will the Minister give the House unreserved assurances that the Wales Office will not delay this life-saving legislation and will not waste taxpayers’ money by making any more spurious referrals to the Supreme Court?

My Department and the Department of Health have been in close discussion with the Welsh Government about the detail of the legislation, and we are optimistic that all outstanding devolution issues will be addressed before publication of the legislation.

Commission on Devolution in Wales

3. What steps he plans to take to implement the recommendations of the first report of the Commission on Devolution in Wales published in November 2012. (129635)

5. What steps he plans to take to implement the recommendations of the first report of the Commission on Devolution in Wales published in November 2012. (129637)

I welcome the publication of the commission’s first report. It is an important piece of work that is thorough and wide-ranging, and I am giving each of the 33 recommendations my full consideration in consultation with Treasury and other Cabinet colleagues. The Government will respond formally in due course.

I, too, congratulate Paul Silk and his team on the excellent work they have done and on the report they produced. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment to introduce legislation in this Parliament to carry forward some of the recommendations in the Silk report?

This matter has been referred to Her Majesty’s Treasury and is the subject of negotiations with the Welsh Government. I can confirm that the legislation will be looked at with a view to proceeding as expeditiously as possible.

The Silk Commission makes a compelling case on the devolution of partial income tax to the Assembly. How swiftly does the Secretary of State believe that we can proceed on this, given the apparent reluctance of the First Minister to countenance reform before full Barnett reform, despite a very good agreement that was brokered in October?

The First Minister’s position is a matter for him, but Paul Silk makes it clear that the commission recommended the devolution of income tax-varying powers within different bands, subject to agreement between the Welsh and the British Governments on issues such as funding. That matter must continue to be looked at.

Does the Secretary of State agree that those who argue that Wales does not have the tax base to partially devolve income tax are fiscally illiterate?

I do not know whether I would go that far, but clearly there is an argument to be made, and it is under consideration.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if the Assembly is given, and uses, powers to raise unlimited amounts of income tax, the effects on the Welsh economy could be devastating?

I think it unlikely that the Assembly could raise unlimited amounts of tax, because it would need unlimited levels of income, which everyone would agree it does not have. Paul Silk’s work is important, and it deserves careful consideration, and that is what is happening at the moment.

May I first add my words of sympathy and best wishes to those who have been affected by the floods in Wales, and my thanks to the emergency services and volunteers, and to the Secretary of State for going there tomorrow?

As the Secretary of State will know, the Silk commission’s report is a very important document that has produced recommendations relating to air passenger duty and income tax—issues that affect not just Wales, but the whole of the UK. Does he therefore agree that the whole House ought to be able to debate those issues, and can he explain why he seems to want to limit that debate to the Welsh Grand Committee?

I believe that we should have an early debate in the Welsh Grand Committee on this important issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that my office is in touch with his office and the offices of the leaders of other parties with a view to agreeing that. It should be done as quickly as possible. On the question of a further debate, that is clearly a matter for the Treasury, the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government to progress the work that is being done to discuss the issue, and at that stage we should consider a further debate, which could potentially be on the Floor of the House. Certainly, any legislation would require primary legislation, which would have to be a matter for the House to deal with in the usual way.

I think the Secretary of State said he is in favour of a debate on the Floor of the House, which is welcome, as his predecessor committed to holding such a debate when we last discussed the Silk commission. In anticipation of that debate and outside the Silk commission, so to speak, the right hon. Gentleman will know that borrowing powers are extremely important to the Welsh Government. Can he confirm that the Silk commission’s recommendation that £200 million-worth of non-income tax powers would constitute, in his view, an independent income stream that would facilitate borrowing for the Welsh Government?

That matter is under active consideration between the Welsh Government, the Wales Office and the Treasury. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the announcement that was made at the end of October and will have been able to draw his own conclusions.

EU Regional Policy

In July my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced to the House the launch of the Government’s review into the balance of competences of the European Union. The review will look at the scope of the EU’s competences as they affect the UK and what this means for our national interest. The review will be completed in 2014.

As the Government’s position, set out in the fifth cohesion report in January 2011, is that wealthier states should not receive structural and cohesion funds, what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the impact on the Welsh regions of repatriating regional policy to the UK?

The Government have made consistently clear our belief that wealthier member states have both the ability and the capacity to finance their own regional development policy and hence do not require structural funds. However, as the Prime Minister made clear on Monday afternoon, we also recognise that the more prosperous member states, such as the UK, need to be given time to make the adjustment and so should continue to receive funding during the 2014-20 programming period. The Government will consider the right balance of competences in terms of regional policy in the autumn of 2013 as part of our review.

Does the Minister accept that Wales does not get its fair share of UK funding in either capital or revenue from Barnett, that the money paid, for instance, to Swansea university—£60 million from the European Investment Bank and £30 million from convergence—helps Wales to succeed, and that we would like to see the UK Government help Wales in the same way?

I do not accept that Wales is underfunded. This Government have demonstrated in our announcements on investment in rail infrastructure in Wales and broadband infrastructure in Wales that we are providing funding over and above the Barnett formula for Wales, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition at all.

Housing Benefit

11. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of changes to housing benefit on people in Wales. (129643)

Information on the expected impact in Wales and across Great Britain of our housing benefit reforms is set out in the relevant impact assessments.

Many of my constituents who are in work on low incomes face an unpalatable choice in April next year. Do they face unaffordable increases in rent, do they downsize to non-existent one-bedroom flats, or do they make themselves homeless? What advice would the Minister give, particularly at a time when the Government are giving a tax cut to millionaires?

Many, many people in work face exactly the same difficult choices about their living arrangements as the ones that the right hon. Gentleman described. One of the central principles of our reforms is that people receiving benefits should have to make the same practical decisions about their living accommodation as people in work.

Many disabled constituents have come to me because, despite having had to make adjustments to their homes simply to accommodate their disability, they now face being kicked out for having an extra bedroom. Does the Minister think that is fair in the 21st century?

The Government are making available transitional funds to help people who have made significant adaptations to their homes in order to cope with serious disability—exactly the circumstances the hon. Gentleman describes—because we recognise that there is a vulnerability and we want to protect those people.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the housing benefit budget in this country is £23 billion and that 5 million receive it? With a budget of that size, surely it is appropriate that the Government are demonstrating to the taxpayer that they are working to get value for money.

My hon. Friend is exactly right, but our reforms are based not just on the need to achieve value for money for the taxpayer. Underpinning our welfare reforms is the need to elevate the principle of making work pay and to ensure much greater fairness in the way our welfare system is delivered.

UK Trade & Investment

7. What recent discussions he has had with UK Trade & Investment on attracting investment to enterprise zones in Wales. (129639)

When I met the chief executive of UKTI last month we discussed how to attract more investment into Wales, including via enterprise zones.

The progress of enterprise zones in Wales has been somewhat patchy, compared with those in England. Will my right hon. Friend agree to work with the enterprise zone in St Athan in seeking to attract major international airlines because of its policy on aerospace?

We would like to see faster progress in the Welsh enterprise zones. Having said that, my hon. Friend is entirely right that St Athan is well placed as an enterprise zone, and I am hopeful that major airlines will be attracted to the facilities it offers.

14. With 11 jobseeker’s allowance claimants chasing every vacancy, we need jobs in Blaenau Gwent. A planning application for a world-class motor sport project will be kick-started this week. Will the Secretary of State help the investors to meet the Treasury to nail down the tax incentives needed for that game-changing development? (129646)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his efforts on behalf of that enterprise zone. He will know that I have met the potential operators of the race track. I understand that bids for enhanced capital allowances have been made by the Welsh Government to HM Treasury. As he knows, I am always happy to discuss these issues with him in person.

Long-term Unemployed

8. What recent estimate he has made of the number of long-term unemployed people in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (129640)

The economy is our top priority, and I am very pleased that unemployment in Wales fell by 5,000 over the last quarter and by 14,000 over the last year. In October 2012 there were 21,000 people in Wales who had been claiming job seeker’s allowance for 12 months or longer.

Does not the fact that long-term unemployment in Wales has risen for 17 consecutive months demonstrate that the Work programme has been an abysmal failure?

It demonstrates nothing of the sort. The statistics published yesterday for the Work programme should not be the basis on which its overall success is judged, because it is a long-term programme. Many of the biggest gains from the programme will be seen in the second year, and statistics will follow this time next year.

Recently in Caernarfon 300 people applied for three jobs at a supermarket checkout and 30 people applied for a junior secretarial post, some of them with higher degrees, and I could give further examples. Why are the Government punishing people who are looking for work when that work is not to be found?

We are not punishing people who are looking for work at all; we are incentivising them to go out and find work. I remind the hon. Gentleman that unemployment is falling right across Wales. There are pockets where more needs to be done, particularly in rural and isolated areas, but he should not doubt our ambition to see all of Wales enjoy some of the good things we are currently seeing in the Welsh labour market.

Departmental Savings

The Wales Office will be making savings of around £550,000 in 2013-14, which amounts to a 10% saving in its administration budget.

With Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland now having Assemblies or Parliaments of their own, many of us would like to see the three territorial Departments rolled into one to save taxpayer funds. Given that that is not part of the coalition’s programme, will my right hon. Friend at least look at more joint working and shared services between the three Departments so as to save money for the taxpayer?

I am pleased to say that that joint working already takes place. In fact, the Wales Office is working actively with the other territorial offices to identify shared working arrangements and we also have a shared parliamentary team. I must take issue with my hon. Friend: I think that Wales benefits immensely from having a Wales Office here at Westminster and I would not want to see it submerged in a quasi-colonial office.

Enterprise Zones

10. What discussions he has had with (a) his ministerial colleagues and (b) Welsh Government Ministers on the development of enterprise zones in Wales and the Welsh borders. (129642)

I am determined that we should maximize the opportunities that enterprise zones can offer in attracting private sector investment and growth into Wales. I am working with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh First Minister to secure this.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proximity of the Deeside enterprise zone with those in Wirral Waters and Daresbury. Does he think there is a case for those three enterprise zones to work together to maximise the potential for economic growth in the economic sub-region?

Yes. As my hon. Friend has said, the Deeside enterprise zone is close geographically to that in Wirral Waters, and I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for synergy between the two zones. In fact, I have already had discussions with the chairman of the Deeside enterprise zone to see what can be done to advance that.

What processes does the Secretary of State have in place to try to resolve some of the issues that Welsh border constituencies have with access to the NHS, road maintenance and other services? They are finding it very difficult to resolve such issues through their local MPs, because the Welsh Assembly and Government will not give time to consider them.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I believe that, in his part of the world, the Mersey Dee Alliance is an appropriate focus and I was very heartened by the proposals in Mrs Elizabeth Haywood’s report to the Welsh Government to create a cross-border city region focused on the Mersey Dee Alliance area.

Fuel Poverty

The Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty and helping people in Wales and across the UK, and especially those in low-income vulnerable households, to heat their homes more affordably.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Office of Fair Trading looked at fuel poverty in both Wales and Northumberland. Does the Minister agree that the energy reforms will bring about real change for hard-pressed consumers?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government cannot, of course, control volatile energy prices on the world markets, but what we can do is ensure that consumers in the UK get access to the very best deals on their energy bills. That is what we are committed to doing, as demonstrated by last week’s announcement by my right hon. Friend the Energy Secretary.

Order. A very large number of noisy conversations are taking place in the Chamber. Let us have a bit of order for Mr Guto Bebb.

Capital Investment (Rail)

13. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on capital investment in rail infrastructure in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (129645)

I discussed railway infrastructure with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport when I met him last month. Last week I met local authorities and business leaders in north Wales to confirm my commitment to progressive electrification of the railways in Wales.

I was disappointed to read in a recent letter from the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) that the Welsh Government has not prioritised the electrification of the north Wales line. In view of the fact that the Welsh Government do not seem to be interested in north Wales, will the Secretary of State provide an assurance that the Wales Office will prioritise expenditure on the north Wales line in due course?

As my hon. Friend will know, only last Friday I held a meeting in Llandudno, the consequence of which was the formation of a working group to work towards the electrification of the north Wales coast line. The group has started its work and I hope that it will receive support from hon. Members in this House.

Far from the Assembly’s Transport Minister not being interested in north Wales, he represents a north Wales seat and has been communicating with me about electrifying the Wrexham-Bidston line. Will the Secretary of State please join our communication and work with us to improve public transport networks in north-east Wales?

The Wrexham-Bidston line was also a matter under discussion last Friday. I mention again the two enterprise zones in Wirral Waters and Deeside, which would benefit enormously from the electrification of that line. I am very supportive of what the hon. Gentleman says.

Private Sector Employment

15. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on increasing private sector employment in Wales. (129647)

The Government have taken action to protect the economy and have set out a comprehensive strategy to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth. Because of this action, we have seen over 1 million private sector jobs created across the UK since we came to power. [Interruption.]

Order. The House is now immensely disorderly. In the interests of the hon. Gentleman, let us have a bit of order.

In two years, this Government have created 1.2 million net new private sector jobs—nearly double the amount that the previous Government created in 10 years. How have we done in Wales?

I am very pleased to inform the House that we are seeing similar good progress in Wales. The House of Commons Library tells me that an estimated 60,000 additional private sector jobs have been created in Wales since May 2010.